This year marks the five hundredth anniversary of Martin Luther’s (1483–1546) translation of the New Testament into German. He titled it The German New Testament (Das Newe Testament Deůtzsch). Since it was published in September of 1522, it was also called the “September Testament” (Septembertestament). Luther’s German Bible was without a doubt his greatest literary achievement. He himself is reported to have said as much (LW Companion 408). His translation not only proved to be a bestseller, it significantly altered the ecclesial landscape, German culture, and the modern world. With the advent of digital technology, anyone can now flip through an original copy of The German New Testament online. See the following link: https://www.deutschestextarchiv.de/book/show/luther_septembertestament_1522.
To understand the significance of the reformer’s The German New Testament, one must remove some misunderstandings about it. First, Luther’s translation was not the first into German. Fourteen High German and four Low German translations of the Latin Vulgate had already been published by 1518. But his German Bible was the first based on the original languages (i.e., Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek). In fact, Luther’s creative mind, linguistic genius, and extensive knowledge of the German people helped him produce a highly idiomatic translation that outshone the more wooden translations of the day. He followed the Renaissance humanist convention of translating a text’s sense (i.e., ad sensum) rather than its mere letter (ad litteram). For instance, Luther added the word “alone” to Romans 3:28 to capture its full meaning: “Thus, we hold that the human being is justified though faith alone (alleyn) without doing the works of the law.” His translation used the language of the Saxon court in Meissen because it could reach the widest German-speaking audience possible both in terms of geography and social class. Luther, furthermore, used punchy, rhythmic, and concise language in his Bible to give his translation a captivating oral quality.
Second, the Sacred Scriptures were by no means absent from medieval life. To be sure, medieval worship services were largely celebrated in Latin, and the Gospel was far from clear in medieval preaching. However, the Bible was regularly read in Latin worship services, preached in German, and illustrated in church art and theatrical performances before Luther’s arrival.
Third, Latin Bibles were not chained in the Middle Ages to keep people from reading them. Medievals did indeed chain Bibles in churches and libraries, but they did this to keep these very costly books from being stolen. The average German, moreover, was not literate enough to read the Bible in German, let alone in Latin. Luther certainly did everything possible to make the German Bible as accessible as possible. Nevertheless, it was not until the eighteenth century that German Bibles could be printed cheaply enough and the common people were literate enough that the average German could own and read the German Bible.
Fourth, Luther never advocated for an unbiblical subjective interpretation of the Scriptures (i.e., the Bible means whatever it means to me). In the Middle Ages, Biblical interpretation had been limited to Latin-educated clergymen and members of religious orders, if not the bishops, councils, or only the pope. This was because the medievals tended to reduce the church to the clergy and the religious orders. At the very least, the laity were deemed second-class members of the church. Medievals also lacked an understanding of the priesthood of all believers’ role in judging sound doctrine (Act 17:11) and in witnessing to the faith (Exodus 19:6; 1 Peter 2:4–5, 9). Finally, they tended to think the Bible was unclear. Then, when the proto-protestant Lollards and Hussites began to use vernacular Bible translations to criticize the medieval church, vernacular Bible translations started to be frowned upon as well. In contradistinction, Luther not only maintained that the laity needed to be able to interpret the Bible (if they were to function as the priesthood of all believers), he also equipped the laity so that they were able to interpret the Bible for themselves without making subjective interpretations of it. In other words, he taught the people how to read the Bible grammatically, historically, contextually, and Christologically (Nehemiah 8:8; 2 Peter 1:20; Romans 12:6; John 5:39) so that they could recognize the Bible’s one Spirit-intended meaning and its proper applications to their faith-lives. He did this not only through preaching and teaching, but also by translating the Bible and providing manifold study aids, such as introductory prefaces and study notes in his Bible. What is more, Luther discovered that the doctrine unpacked by this Biblical approach to Bible interpretation was more in harmony with the doctrine of the early church fathers (e.g., St. Augustine of Hippo) than the doctrine of his opponents. This was splendidly ironic because Luther’s opponents were accusing him of subjective, new, and heretical teachings.
Fifth, Luther may not have single-handedly forged the early modern German language. Still, his Bible profoundly shaped the German language and the culture for centuries to come. It helped establish a number of the stylistic features of German. His Bible further advanced Saxon court German as standard German. It coined numerous phrases still used by Germans today.
Luther’s translation of the New Testament was initiated during his ten-month stay at the Wartburg Castle near Eisenach. He was especially driven by the need for all Christians to have a better understanding of the Pauline Epistles which were so fundamental to Reformation theology. After Luther had refused to recant his theology at the Diet of Worms (1521), Elector Friedrich the Wise of Saxony (1468–1525) secretly stashed Luther at the Wartburg for his protection. The emperor’s Edict of Worms made Luther an outlaw. There the reformer grew out his hair, was disguised as a knight, and went by the name Jörg. But he grew stir crazy at his Patmos (cf. Revelation 1:9) and took on a number of writing projects (e.g., devotional writings, postils [i.e., model sermons], polemical treatises, and A Judgment on Monastic Vows). In fact, Luther began his translation of the New Testament at the beginning of 1522 and finished it in less than eleven weeks! Still this could not remain a solo project. Once he returned to Wittenberg, he had Philipp Melanchthon (1497–1560), a premier Greek scholar, help him revise it. Georg Spalatin (1484–1545) assisted as well. His translation was based on the second edition of Desiderius Erasmus’s (1466–1536) Greek New Testament, the Novum Testamentum Omne (1519). Luther’s The German New Testament began to be published in September of 1522. The title page omits the names of the translators and publisher, but the listing of Wittenberg as the place of publication spoke volumes. Besides introductory prefaces, marginal study notes, and Lukas Cranach the Elder’s (1472–1553) illustrations, Luther sought to facilitate understanding by introducing a single column format into his Bible and breaking the text into paragraphs like modern Bible publishers do. The antilegomena books were placed at the end. A revised second edition was published in December of that same year (“December Testament”).
Luther eventually expanded his translation commission to help him translate the rest of the Bible. This commission included Philipp Melanchthon, Johannes Bugenhagen (1485–1558), Caspar Cruciger the Elder (1504–48), and Matthäus Aurogallus (ca. 1490–1543). Meanwhile, Luther and Melanchthon began revising the Latin Vulgate for worship especially in the urban parishes. By 1534, Luther published his High German translation of the whole Bible (including the non-canonical apocrypha) and added the aforementioned study aids to the Old Testament. Granted, Bugenhagen got his Low German version of it published the year before. Thereafter, Luther continued to work with various translation teams to revise and improve his Bible and its study aids until his last revision in 1545. Records of the various translation teams show just how arduously they worked on the project.
In the preface to the Wittenberg Edition of Luther’s German Writing (1539), Luther articulated his threefold strategy for reading the Bible devotionally and cultivating the spiritual life. Drawing on Psalm 119, he counseled believers first to pray that the Holy Spirit reveal the meaning of a given text of Scripture. Then Luther advised them to meditate on that text by continually mulling it over in their hearts and minds. Finally, he indicated that as they put the text into practice in their lives, they would experience crosses which would spiritually refine them just as gold is refined.
Rev. Dr. Timothy Schmeling